Americans are lonely and the pandemic has made them lonelier. The answer, at least in some media outlets, is easy. All the lonely people should move in together, live in community, share housing and meals and exercise classes—and maybe even raise children together. The beginning of this trend seems to be David Brooks’ argument against the nuclear family. But this year, the New Yorker has picked up the ball and run with it.
Two extensive articles—one on polygamy and polyamory and the other on communal living—seem to be part of an extended argument for Americans to reconsider their individual apartments and suburban homes and instead try to expand their “families.” What’s amazing about both articles, though, is the extent to which this new vision of communal life is deeply unconcerned with children.
In the thousands of words expended by Andrew Solomon in his piece on polyamory, none are about the well-being of the children raised in these environments. It’s a particularly glaring oversight for Solomon, whose extensive book Far From the Tree, carefully chronicled the different ways that parents care for—and indeed completely reorient their lives—for children with different kinds of special needs. But here, he never feels the need to ask one child about living with a rotating case of unrelated adults or look at the research on the greater risks to kids living in these unusual arrangements.
The more recent piece on communal living among adults who are not romantically involved focuses on arrangements like Treehouse Hollywood, which author Nathan Heller describes as “a space for community living, where people of many ages and from many walks of life eat together, spend time together, and conduct their lives largely in common view.” At the Treehouse, most of the residents are young single adults, but we do meet a single mother with a five-year-old child, named Maliyah.
Her mother, Jazmine Williams, was 22 when she gave birth, and the child seems to be a kind of mascot to the community. The adults give her plenty of attention, but who these adults are, whether they are good influences on her and how long they will be in her life, seem to be of no concern—even though children living with nonrelative males are at higher risk for abuse. Heller explains about the mother that her:
network of support [before Treehouse], though strong, could not be everything when a person sought to shape her life and her child’s in her own way and in her own time. Maybe she didn’t know just where she was headed, and maybe she loved that; and maybe, living in community, she knew that there were always people with her on the way.
Who knows what any of that actually means except that rather than coming up with a plan for bringing up her child and making decisions about who will influence that upbringing, Williams has just decided to go with the flow.
At the Embassy, another communal living building in San Francisco, we learn that this arrangement has actually led some people to give up on their actual families. Take Seth Frey, who “used to live in a house with a wife and a child. He decided that he preferred community and separated from his wife, but his son has not yet spent time with him at the Embassy.” Then Heller offers this aside: “The current members haven’t reached a consensus about kids.”
Again, what does that even mean? Are these authors really suggesting that we should consider such communities as viable future living arrangements for Americans when they can’t decide what they even think about children? What kind of future is this?
It is most certainly one that is geared toward the whims of single young adults. In one story about Treehouse, we learn that a group of people were on the roof “playing rap over the stereo while other residents were trying to have a quiet night. The next day, a message went out over Slack: Would people not play such loud music—with words like “bitch” and “ho,” and racial epithets—in the shared space?”
Of course, what ensued was a conflict over racial sensitivity, but maybe the point should have been that this is not the kind of language that should be blaring in earshot of a five-year-old. What works for single adults isn’t necessarily the best environment in which to raise children.
Indeed, what the residents adore about communal living is exactly what may harm kids. One resident tells Heller that living at Treehouse “had made her realize how airless and stiff normal structures were.” But structure and routine are good for children. Another tells him, “I’ve never been big on family,” he said. “Very much an isolationist, a loner. But I would fight for this community.”
Why would he fight for it? “The crucial ingredient wasn’t the strength of the bonds involved but their looseness, their flexibility,” he told Heller. Again, the reason that the residents of these communities like them is exactly the reason they are not suitable for children. But in the communities of the future, it seems, children are an afterthought.